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Helen Fields Utterly Terrifying

Detective Chief Inspector Ava Turner was blue-lighting it southbound out of Edinburgh, towards Roslin Glen. The roads were getting icy already, preparing for freezing temperatures overnight. The weather was no match, though, for the chill brought by the 999 call she was listening to on repeat in preparation for the scene she was attending.

‘Help me, please, help me…’

‘Can you tell me your name?’

‘Bridget. My…my boyfriend’s dead. He was stabbed.’

‘Where are you now, Bridget?’

‘In the woods, I don’t know where, I ran away but then I heard him calling for me. Please help.’

‘Can you get somewhere safe? Are there any buildings nearby?’

‘There’s nothing here. He came out of nowhere.’

‘I’m going to send police officers out straight away but you need to tell me which woods you’re in.’

‘Roslin Glen. We parked at the chapel and walked from there. He’s coming for me, I know he is.’

‘I’m going to stay on the line. You need to find somewhere you can hide, turn your phone to silent, and wait for the police to arrive.’

‘I hear footsteps.’ More sobbing. ‘Oh god, I think it’s him. Can you…’ the young woman broke off. Footsteps pounded through leaves. A man’s voice, deep and guttural, shouted something unintelligible in the distance. She cried out. The line went dead.

Finding the terrified woman should have been easy, but Rosslyn Chapel car park presented a whole new set of challenges. For a cold February night, there were an unexpected number of cars present. Ava called in every single officer she had immediately available, and requested backup in the form of any off-duty officer who could make it, then started trekking along the footpath to the glen and into the woods. It was her nose that had led her to the body. Investigate enough murders and you could smell blood a mile away.

Now there was a dead body lying at Ava’s feet. No point trying to perform CPR give that his windpipe had been severed so roughly. His home-knitted scarf had not been enough to protect his neck from the blade, and his matching gloves were a gummy mess where he’d tried for a few short seconds to stem the flow of blood. His girlfriend was somewhere in Roslin Glen, petrified, waiting for police and paramedics to arrive. Ava was hopeful, but not at all certain, that the young woman would be found in time.

She called in the location of the corpse, cursing the pitch dark as she flashed her torch every few seconds and waited for uniformed officers to find her, then guard the body until Scenes of Crime officers could take over. That wouldn’t be for a while, though. A knife-wielding murderer was on the prowl in the nature reserve, concealed somewhere in the thicket of trees, and she intended to find him before he knew the hunt was on.

‘M’am,’ a man whispered to her side. ‘You all right?’

‘Sergeant Lively,’ she replied. ‘How’s the perimeter coming?’

‘Slowly,’ he said. ‘There’s a huge area to cover. Should we not just get the lights and sirens blaring and clear the place out?’

‘Too dangerous until we’ve located the woman, and I want to get this bastard. He’s killed once, and he could kill again. And what’s with all the nighttime visitors here? It’s like the middle of summer in the car park.’

‘You really don’t know?’

‘Know what?’ Ava hissed.

‘It’s Valentine’s night. You’ve got people here from all over the bloody world trying to recreate scenes from Outlander, proposing to their beloveds while we’re running through the woods trying to figure out which one’s the killer.’

‘Bloody Valentine’s Day,’ Ava muttered. She looked down at the cooling corpse, knelt, dipped her hands in and out of his pockets, identifying a little box with her fingertips and issuing a soft sigh. She opened it as she stood up. The diamond solitaire absorbed the moonlight. ‘That’s probably what set this guy off. Right, the uniforms are here. Let’s get moving.’

‘Do you not think it’d be a better idea for you to co-ordinate from the car park?’

‘Yeah, that’s going to happen,’ she muttered, setting off.

They went low through the woodland, moving as fast as they could without crashing into branches. Ava waved Lively away to her right, spreading out to cover more ground. The scream that sliced through the night was not too far away. They began to sprint, Lively calling it in on his radio as they went. Racing into a deeper thicket, twigs snagged their clothes and hair. Lively’s breath grew increasingly ragged. There was no way he could keep up the pace for long. Ava sprinted ahead, torch on but pointed down at her feet.

Rounding a natural bend in a path, she paused. A man and woman were huddled on the ground against a fallen tree trunk, the man holding out a large branch like a sword, the shake of his hands producing a maraca-like rattle from the dried leaves.

‘Police,’ Ava said. ‘You’re safe now. What happened?’

‘There was a man, he jumped out from the undergrowth. Maniac was holding a knife - he lunged for us,’ the man said. ‘I hit him with this branch.’

‘Anyone hurt?’ Ava asked. They shook their heads. Lively, panting hard, finally caught up. ‘Can you describe the man?’

‘Not much. He had a black hat and a dark hoodie. He came out of nowhere,’ the woman said. ‘Thank god he backed off when we fought.’

‘Lively, stay here and keep them safe. Which direction did he go?’

As one, they pointed into the denser forest down the slope, off the beaten track.

‘M’am, please, wait for armed units,’ Lively puffed. Too little, too late. Ava was gone.

She went as fast as she could go quietly, fighting to control her breathing while her eyes adjusted to the dark. From tree to tree, she moved then paused, following the trampled plants and the snapped branches where someone had rushed through, bullish. A crackle of twigs issued from somewhere behind her. Ava stopped dead, ducked, grabbed a rock from the ground, and readied for a fight. Harsh breaths. Footsteps staggering, followed by a hard crash on the woodland floor. Then a cry, definitely female. Ava rushed forward, branches slapping her cheeks.

‘I’m here to help,’ she called out. ‘Where are you?’

The sobs were answer enough. The young woman was curled in a foetal position, half hidden by a bush, and trying to drag branches over herself for camouflage. She flinched and put up shaking hands when Ava approached.

‘I’m a police officer,’ Ava said. ‘I’m here to protect you. Are you hurt?’

The woman shook her head.

‘Good, now just…’

The hand was over her mouth before Ava had time to register that anyone was behind her. She brought both her hands up over her head to grab her attacker’s hair, digging her nails in hard as she fell left to put him off balance. The young woman on the floor was shrieking.

‘It’s me!’ the man whispered in his ear. The French accent took a second to sink in, before she released D.I. Luc Callanach’s scalp.

Ava reached out to calm and reassure the woman who had now scrambled entirely beneath a bush and was shivering in the darkness, pools of moonlight reflecting in her terrified eyes.

‘It’s okay, he’s another police officer. Everything will be all right now.’ Ava crawled as close as she could and held the woman’s hand.

‘He won’t stop. He’s already killed Mark. There were other people screaming, too.’

‘We won’t let anything happen to you,’ Luc whispered. ‘Stay down. There are other officers on their way.’

He and Ava stood up, standing guard, huddled together.

‘Does she know her attacker? What’s the motive?’ he asked.

‘Looks like it was linked to Valentine’s. This is a popular spot for proposals. He’s obviously been triggered, either by rejection or jealousy. How long until backup finds us?’

‘A few minutes. They’re still trying to seal off the whole area but we’re talking a few miles around the woodland and we don’t want him slipping out. We either reveal our presence and alert him, or wait it out and stop every single person as they exit the glen.’

‘I’m not letting this bastard get away. He’s killed once and attacked a second couple. He’ll do it again,’ Ava said.

‘If he’s looking for another victim and he finds them before we find him, can you really live with those consequences?’

Ava looked around, kicked additional leaves and twigs around the base of the bush under which the woman was hiding, then bent down again.

‘Stay here, keep silent. Whatever happens, don’t come out. This’ll all be over soon,’ she said. ‘Luc, come with me.’

She grabbed his hand and pulled him away from the bushes, up a small slope onto a clearer mound where the moonlight was better able to break through.

‘Ava, stop, we won’t be able to see him coming and our voices are going to travel. This is insane.’ She burst out laughing, giving Luc a playful slap on the shoulder. ‘What the hell are you doing?’

She leaned forward, slid her arms up around his neck and whispered into his ear.

‘Do your jacket up. I don’t want him seeing your stab vest. Then try looking like you’re madly in love with me, okay?’

Luc took a deep breath, pulled up the zip of his jacket so he could pass as any other member of the public and reciprocated the embrace, wrapping his arms around Ava’s waist.

‘That’s better,’ she said quietly. Then, much louder, ‘So, why did you ask me here tonight?’

‘Would you believe me if I said, just to get out of the house? Honestly, anything’s better than your cooking.’ He laughed and she gave him a mock shove.

‘Hey, we’ve been living together for months now and I think it’s been going pretty well, don’t you?’ Ava asked.

In the distance, an owl flew up from a tree branch with a startled squawk. They each held their nerve, refused to look.

‘I do, actually,’ Luc replied. ‘Very well. Better than I ever expected.’

‘In fact, I’m not sure I’d want to go back to living without you,’ Ava told him, keeping her voice good and loud.

‘I feel exactly the same,’ Luc said, smiling broadly and stroking her hair.

The sound of movement, snapping twigs, came from the area they’d left the woman hiding under the bush. Slow footsteps, careful, guarded. Ava pushed a tiny box into Luc’s hand.

‘Ready for this?’ she whispered. Luc nodded. If they didn’t draw him out now, there was every chance the attacker would hear the woman moving or crying.

‘I’m glad we both feel the same way,’ he said, ‘because…’ He stepped away from her, giving himself some space, went down on one knee, and in a grand gesture produced the engagement ring Ava had taken from the corpse earlier. ‘Ava Turner, from the moment I met you, I haven’t been able to imagine a future with anyone but you. You’re infuriating, exhausting, difficult, too independent for your own good, and you never let anyone else choose which film to watch.’ Ava allowed herself a small laugh at that, to cover her glance around at the surrounding trees. The moon had chosen the moment to hide, and the tiny slivers of light it left behind were not enough to see who might be watching them, and where they might be hiding. Luc took her left hand in his right. ‘I love you. Not in spite of those things, but because of them. Ava, marry me. Drive me crazy for the rest of my life. Argue with me every day. Frustrate me every hour. No one else makes me feel the way you do.’

Ava could feel a presence now, a sick, malevolence in the air, as if she were breathing the killer in. She fixed a smile on her face and held out her ring finger for Luc to slide the single, stunning diamond onto it, then stepped forward to kiss him as he stood up. The man was behind the tree to her left and Luc’s right. As their lips met, she put a hand to Luc’s chin and turned it so he was looking in the right direction.

The charge came low - much lower than she’d expected - faster and stronger too. He held the knife out in front, slashing as he sprinted, aiming at Luc. Ava swung round, shifting her body in front of Luc’s, feeling the knife connect with her knee and falling forward, knowing she had to grab some part of the attacker and slow him down. She got a hold on the killer’s jacket, just the bottom of his zip, and clung on with every ounce of strength she had, pulling him towards her, catching him off balance.

Luc shot out a hand and snagged his fingers in the man’s hair, pulling his head down and lifting a knee to ram it into the underside of the killer’s chin. There was a double click as his teeth clashed, parted, then clashed again. It echoed through the woods like shots, and from the distant hedge, the young woman cried out.

Ava was on the ground now, her injured knee buckling. She rolled and flung her arm out to find his hand, and the knife. Luc was there too, in the same space, and for a moment their fingers found one another’s in the writhing mass. Cold steel hit the back of her hand and she flicked her palm upward to grab it. Luc’s right hand found the man’s wrist, biting his fingers into the tendons like a vise. The knife fell. Ava caught it, then threw it into the woods behind them, out of reach.

Luc brought an elbow down on the back of the man’s neck, smashing into the top of his spine. There was a crunch, an expulsion of breath, and the killer landed on top of Ava, unconscious. Luc hauled his body away, rolling him onto his stomach and handcuffing his arms behind his back as Ava messaged Sergeant Lively.

‘You okay?’ Luc called to her.

‘I’m fine,’ she said, attempting to stand and giving up just as quickly, instead taking out her torch and shining it into the air to signal their position. ‘It’s just a scratch. Go look after her.’ She nodded in the direction of the woman in the bushes.

Two hours later Scenes of Crime had taken over, the attacker was in custody, and Ava was in Accident & Emergency having her knee stitched up. Luc sat at her side, having delivered coffee. Sergeant Lively appeared as the doctor was finishing up.

‘Y’all right then, m’am? Nothing permanent?’

‘Why, were you going to apply for my job, Lively?’ Ava asked.

‘Aye, well they offered it to me last time, but I turned it down. Too much boring paperwork. Some of us have to stay in the field and keep the public safe.’ He paused and frowned. ‘Is there…some sort of announcement you’d like to make, m’am?’

‘Well, I wish people would stop using Roslin in books and TV shows so it’s not a tourist Mecca any more.’

‘Nothing more personal, maybe?’ Lively asked.

‘Lively, what the hell is wrong with you? I need you back at the station…’ She stopped talking. ‘Oh, that. You idiot, Lively. It’s a bloody exhibit.’ She tugged at the engagement ring, which protested, then unwillingly squeaked off. ‘Take it, put it in an exhibit bag. It’s going to need to go to either the deceased’s family or to the woman who should have become his fiancée tonight.’

Luc handed over the ring box for Lively to keep it in. The sergeant took a cup of coffee, uninvited as ever, and disappeared.

‘I’ll bring the car round and pick you up,’ Luc said. ‘Can you walk to the door, or should I fetch a wheelchair?’

‘Not even answering that,’ Ava said.

Luc paused at the curtain to look back at her.

‘I meant what I said, about the last few months,' he said. 'They’ve been better than I expected. It feels wrong to say so, with Natasha having been so sick, but living with you has been good.’

‘Yeah,’ Ava replied quietly. ‘It’s been good for me, too.’ Her cheeks ran a deeper shade of pink for a second. ‘Just as long as you didn’t mean any of the other stuff you said!’ she continued with a grin. ‘Can’t have you going soft on me, now.’

‘Did it scare you, back in the woods?’ he asked, no smile on his face at all.

‘Being attacked in the dark by a knife-wielding murderer? What sort of fool wouldn’t be scared?’

‘That wasn’t what I meant, Ava,’ he said, walking away. ‘And you know it.’

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Natasha silenced the music she’d been listening to at full volume, and frowned.

‘Ava, I’ve made it clear that I’m not doing Christmas this year. No tree, no lights, no dried out turkey, no bread sauce - why the hell does that stuff even exist? Yes, I’d love some sort of regurgitated bread goo all over my dinner which, when combined with gravy, will form a lumpy slick on my tongue.’

Ava Turner braved a few more steps into the room, stopping short of actually sitting down. Her best friend, Professor Natasha Forge, was in no mood for a cosy chat nor was she going to respond well to a pep talk.

‘Okay, so what do you want to do on Christmas Day?’ she asked.

‘Honestly, probably just sleep. I want to not feel sick for a day. I want to not look in a mirror and be reminded that chemotherapy took my hair. I want my mobile not to beep at me when it’s time to take yet more medication.’

Ava nodded and allowed herself to flop into an armchair.

‘I get it,’ she said. ‘This year…’

They stared at one another. Finishing the sentence would have been pointless repetition of a conversation had too often in the previous months since Natasha had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The back door slammed and heavy footsteps stomped on the doormat.

‘Do not bring walk that mud through my kitchen!’ Natasha shouted.

Words were muttered low in French.

‘How many months have I lived with you both now?’ Luc Callanach asked her as he appeared, shoeless, removing his hat and scarf. ‘Several, correct? And on how many occasions have I walked mud through the house?’

‘None,’ Natasha said, a grin finally appearing on her face. It always did when Luc arrived home, Ava noted. She wasn’t jealous. It was a relief to see Natasha smile, to know that her best friend was still there, beneath the pain and the fear. ‘And that’s because I remind you every single time you get home.’

Luc collapsed onto the sofa next to her, slid an arm around her shoulders and kissed Natasha’s temple. ‘So have you decided how you want to celebrate Christmas Day yet? I’m on call but hopefully I won’t be needed. Ava’s free all d

ay, but that won’t help with the cooking unless we’re having a “remove the outer packaging, pierce the film and microwave for 3 minutes” Christmas dinner.’

Ava threw a cushion which he ducked neatly.

‘Christmas is off the menu,’ Natasha said. ‘The worst thing is the predictability of it all. How did a tradition become such a drag?’

‘It seems a shame to ignore it completely,’ Luc said.

‘The magic’s gone from it. There are some things you just can’t get back. I’m going to bed.’

‘Let me help you,’ Ava said, getting up.

‘I’m fine. You and Luc can stay here and whisper about what how grumpy I’m getting. It’s fine. I don’t blame you.’

Ava grinned. ‘You think I’d bothering whispering, woman? If I want to say something, I’ll say it to your face.’

That got half a smile in reply as Natasha made her way up the stairs to her bedroom.

‘What are we going to do?’ Ava asked when Natasha was out of earshot.

Luc shrugged. ‘These things have a way of working themselves out. Natasha’s in a difficult place. Wait and see how she feels in the morning.’

‘I don’t want to waste a Christmas with her, Luc. It’s too precious. I know I’m being selfish, but I want every memory I can get. The thought of pretending Christmas isn’t even happening tomorrow feels like such a loss.’

‘Ava,’ Luc said, pulling her to her feet. ‘Go to bed and stop thinking about it. Natasha should get the day she needs, that’s the most important thing.’

‘Am I at least allowed to give her a present?’

‘Only if you’re got one for me too.’ He kissed her on the cheek and followed Natasha up the stairs.

The doorbell rang at 6.46am on December 25. Ava was the first to get there, shivering in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms.

‘Sergeant Lively? What the hell’s going on?’

‘Need you out of the house straight away, ma’am. We’ve had a specific threat in relation to this property. We’re not currently sure if the target is you or Detective Inspector Fancy Pants with his designer stubble.’

Ava sighed. ‘Knock it off, Sergeant. It’s too early for you and DI Callanach to start scoring points off each other. Get off the doorstep and brief me about this threat.’

Lively stepped inside.

‘Non-specific at the moment. Someone called in the address and said they knew MIT officers lived here.’

‘We should listen to the tape,’ Ava said. ‘DI Callanach and I will go to the station. You get Professor Forge to a safehouse.’

‘Tape won’t help, ma’am,’ Lively sa

id. ‘They used a voice changer.’

‘Ava, what’s going on?’ Natasha asked. She stood at the top of the stairs, arms folded.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ Ava said. ‘But we’ll need to leave for a few hours while my team secure the property.’

‘We’ll take good care of you, I promise,’ Lively said.

Natasha took a deep breath. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Give me five minutes then I’m all yours…’ She waited for the introduction.

‘This is Sergeant Lively,’ Ava explained. ‘Sergeant, Natasha will need to be taken somewhere comfortable and warm. She’s currently going through…’

‘Don’t you bloody dare,’ Natasha said. ‘This is turning out to be a more exciting Christmas Day than I could possibly have imagined so I’m banning the C word for 24 hours, got it?’

‘Got it,’ Ava said quietly and Natasha marched away to get ready.

‘I like her,’ Lively smirked. ‘By the way, the Superintendent’s asked for DI Callanach to remain here. Sir, you should make sure you’re visible within the property during the day. Curtains drawn, take the opportunity to open the front door a couple of times. We’ll have units in the vicinity but it seemed better to maintain an opportunity to make an arrest.’

‘I don’t agree, sergeant,’ Ava said. ‘As the senior officer here, I think leaving DI Callanach vulnerable is a mistake.’

‘Sorry, ma’am, but the evil Overbitch says you’re a witness and potential victim so you’re not to be involved in operational planning. You and Professor Forge will be taken to a hotel and remain there until matters are finalised.’

‘Lively, I made it very clear that you cannot call Superintendent Overbeck…alternative names. Now, I need to…’

‘You need to leave, quickly.’ Luc said.

‘Whoever made this threat could be watching right now, and it’s not fair to leave Natasha vulnerable. Let Lively escort you. I’ll stay in contact and we’ll decide when it’s safe for you to return.’

Natasha descended the stairs carrying a backpack and looking intensely happy. Ava got changed and grudgingly followed her out of the house.

‘Stay safe,’ she said quietly to Luc as she exited.

‘I’ll be fine, I promise,’ he replied.

Ava phoned every hour on the hour. Natasha was in the background demanding updates as she described the hotel suite they’d been allocated and ate her way through the menu. At 6pm Superintendent Overbeck stood the operation down, explaining that they’d identified the source of the threat and that it had been nothing more than a time waster playing a prank.

Ava unlocked the front door, mid conversation with Sergeant Lively.

‘I still want whoever did this to be charged,’ she said. ‘That’s a day of police time, not too mention the expense of the hotel suite and the distress that could have been caused.’

‘You’re kidding,’ Natasha laughed from behind her. ‘A 5 star hotel and the best cocktails I’ve ever tasted on the one day this year I was given permission to drink. No home cooked food, no crap TV and no tinsel. It was everything I wanted.’

‘I’d still like to know the identity of whoever called in the threat. It might be someone I’ve come into contact with before. I’m not sure we should be ruling out a genuine problem so quickly.’

Lively laughed. ‘Oh, I think we can be quite sure, ma’am. Mind you, the perpetrator owes me a bloody big favour, getting me out of bed so early when I wasn’t even on duty.’

‘Thank you, sergeant,’ Luc said from the far end of the hallway. ‘I’ll remember.’

‘That’s a year’s worth of the drinks being on you. Well, I’ve a bottle of the good stuff with my name on it. Good evening ma’am, Professor.’ He did a mock salute. ‘And may I wish you a very happy Christmas.’

Lively left looking smug. Ava stood, fa

ce like thunder, hands on hips.

‘Luc, what were you thinking? I’ve been worried about you all day. Natasha was…’

‘I was fine,’ Natasha interjected. ‘But I don’t understand…’

‘Could you please both wait a minute?’ Luc asked. ‘Just sixty seconds more? Then you can spend the entire evening being angry or moaning or asking questions. Follow me.’

He walked into the pitch black back garden and told Ava and Natasha to stand still while he disappeared into the shed.

With the flick of a switch the garden was lit up with string after string of golden fairy lights. In the centre of the lawn, three deckchairs had been covered in cushions and blankets. Luc walked to a small iron fire pit in the middle of the circle of chairs and lit the kindling.

‘Christmas dinner,’ he explained. ‘Apparently baked potatoes cooked in foil is about as far from turkey and the trimmings as we could get. That was Lively’s idea. I am insisting on melting a decent French brie inside each potato though. And I chose French wine too.’

‘Luc,’ Natasha said softly. ‘Is this what you’ve spent all day doing? You set the whole thing up to get us out of the house?’

‘It’s not like you’d have gone willingly,’ Luc said.

‘And the hotel suite? The bar bill? Are you paying for that too?’

‘You’re both so hard to buy for, and it was a present I didn’t even have to wrap. Now sit down. There’s one last surprise left.’

They settled themselves on the lawn chairs and wrapped up warm as Luc served drinks.

Switching off the lights again, he pulled a

remote control from his pocket and pressed a couple of buttons. The back wall of the garage came alive with movement and light.

‘Star Wars,’ Natasha gasped. ‘My favourite movie.’

‘I borrowed the projector form one of the team,’ Luc said. ‘Now, has this been a sufficiently non-Christmas Day for you?’

Natasha threw off her blankets and walked across to hug him.

‘It’s been perfect,’ she said. ‘Don’t let Ava tell you any differently.’

They watched the film, ate, drank and laughed late into the night. Ava helped an exhausted Natasha to her room then rejoined Luc by the fire.

‘Was the Superintendent in on it as well?’ she asked.

‘She had to be, in case you phoned her, as were the on-call team at the station.’

‘That’s quite the charade. You could have told me, you know. It would have been easier. I could have been better prepared…’

‘Ava,’ Luc said quietly, slipping his arms around her shoulders. ‘What makes you think this was Natasha’s gift?’

Ava shrugged. ‘But it was everything she wanted - the break in tradition…’

‘And what you wanted was to see her excited again. To see her smile. You wanted her to have a day where you made a new memory together.’

Ava looked away too late to hide the shimmering in her eyes.

‘So what am I supposed to give you as a gift that can ever match up to this?’ she asked.

‘Just this moment,’ he said. ‘It’s more than enough.’

*Happy Christmas from Luc, Ava, Natasha, Sergeant Lively & Superintendent Overbeck *

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Claire jogged through the shopping centre. The sign for the toilets taunted her in the distance. Since she’d had the baby, time had begun playing tricks on her. So many hours to fill, yet never a free minute to get to the loo. Molly’s pram was slowing her down. It was enormous, the latest thing in baby safety, but it was like manoeuvring a tank.

A note on the family toilet door proclaimed it ‘Out of order’. She kept going towards the ladies’, issuing a stream of apologies as she went. The door to the disabled toilet was no more welcoming. That too presented a sticker barring entry for some undefined fault. Claire tensed her stomach, knowing there was no way the pram would fit into a standard cubicle, equally certain that she didn’t have time to get Molly into the baby harness.

‘Excuse me, the pram won’t fit,’ she told an older lady who was washing her hands. ‘Couldyou watch my baby a moment?’

‘Of course,’ the woman smiled sweetly into the pram. ‘We’ll be fine, won’t we?’ she cooed at Molly. ‘Thank you,’ Claire said, already inside the cubicle, fiddling with an uncooperative bolt. New voices echoed within the tiled enclosure, girls talking a million miles an hour about lipstick. Claire gave silent thanks for having averted one more crisis in a normal day of parenting a three month old, then made her way back out of the cubicle. She peered through the preening girls, reaching for the taps, looking left and right to check on Molly. Standing still, soap dripping off her hands, she double-checked the view. The pram had been just a few doors down. She stepped back, treading on a girl’s toes, saying sorry as the girl responded with a word she hoped Molly wouldn't know at such a young age. ‘Molly?’ she called, feeling stupid instantly. Her daughter was hardly going to recognise her name, let alone answer. ‘Have you seen an old woman with a pram?’ she asked the girls. ‘She was right here two minutes ago.’

The girls stared as if she was mad, shaking their heads and clearing out in a gaggle. There were tears on her cheeks as she caught her face in the mirror. Clutching her stomach, her heart no quieter than a stampede, she saw a yellow note stuck on the counter just below the wash basin where she’d been standing.

‘Your baby is at lost property,’ the paper said. Claire grabbed it, thinking it couldn’t possibly be for her, knowing it couldn’t be for anyone else. Why had she left Molly with a stranger? Surely her own needs could never have outweighed her daughter’s safety. How was she going to explain it to her husband, and why wasn’t she already moving? She grabbed her handbag, breaking into a sprint, fighting the growing nausea inside and grateful beyond belief that she already knew where lost property was located. One floor down on the escalator and Claire was there, glancing over shoulders and heads to catch a glimpse of the pram. ‘Excuse me…’ Claire said. ‘I’m just helping someone else, madam, could you wait please?’ a suited, heavily made-up woman responded without looking at her. ‘I was told my baby was in lost property. Have you seen a baby? A little girl? Three months old.’ The lost property official glared at her as if she was insane. Claire lowered her eyes, aware that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and that she didn’t have the luxury of sitting down. The note was hanging precariously from the bottom edge of the lost property sign. For a second, Claire wondered if she was hallucinating. Reaching out a shaking hand, she touched the yellow square, the printing upon it blurring as she tried to read. It took three attempts before the words made sense. ‘A baby is not “property”. Go to security.’ ‘Where’s security?’ Claire blurted. ‘I’m sorry, I have asked you to…’ ‘My baby’s missing,’ she yelled, banging a hand on the desk. ‘Just tell me where the security office is and I’ll go away!’ ‘Two floors up, next to the cafe,’ the woman said. ‘And there is a policy about abusive behaviour towards employees, you know.’ She was already gone, dashing for the lifts, mobile in hand, wondering if she should phone her husband straight away. Right now, he was on a train to London. Short of terrifying him, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. She was alone. By the time she’d exited the lift and scrambled to security, her eye-makeup had formed tree root patterns down her cheeks and the only sounds she could make were sobs. ‘My baby,’ she ranted. ‘Baby’s gone. Molly. From the toilets downstairs. Please help.’ ‘All right, try to calm down a bit love. We handle twenty lost children a day. Haven’t lost one yet for more than half an hour. Give me a description.’ The security officer opened a notebook with infuriating slowness. ‘Molly’s only three months old. She didn’t go anywhere. Someone took her,’ Claire shrieked. ‘Someone walked off with your baby? Which shop were you in at the time?’ he asked. ‘I was in the ladies toilets. I asked this woman to look after her and she seemed nice, so I went into the cubicle and now she’s gone. Can’t you, I don’t know, lock down all the exits or something? You can’t let her leave!’ ‘Well, that’s an unusual scenario, that is. Can you describe the woman you left your baby with?’ Claire tried to recall the details. Her mind was blank. ‘She was older, maybe, I’m not sure, over sixty. Wearing a coat, I think. And a hat. Not sure what colours. I can’t really…’ ‘The baby, then. Can you give me a good description of the baby?’ ‘Um, grey pram, her name’s Molly, some empty shopping bags in the net underneath.’ ‘That’s not hugely helpful if you don’t mind my saying, Miss. We’ll need more than that or we’ll end up stopping every older lady and every pram in the building.’ ‘I didn’t pay attention, all right? I was desperate. I just need you to find her! Please, please do something. This is useless!’ Claire ran from the security office, dashing into shop after shop, racing towards prams, staring at tiny faces, the traitorous minutes both dragging and racing. A hand on her shoulder halted her progress. Molly closed her eyes with relief at the sight of the police uniforms. ‘Oh, thank you, it’s been fifteen minutes and I can’t see her anywhere. Have you found the woman?’ ‘We’re here to talk to you, ma’am,’ the officer said. ‘We’ve had reports that a baby has been abandoned in the ladies’ toilet. Can I ask you to confirm your name?’ ‘I didn’t abandon Molly, she was taken. I looked everywhere. There were these notes…’ Claire saw the folded arms, the unsympathetic looks, and she ran, dashing down escalators, racing through the crowds, holding her breath until she burst into the toilets. There Molly was, giggling happily at a police woman, still tucked cosily into her pram. Fine. Absolutely fine. Claire ripped open the belt clips, clutching Molly against her chest, burying her face in the baby’s hair. ‘You can’t just go off shopping and leave your baby, ma’am. It’s not safe,’ the WPC said. ‘There were notes,’ Claire said. ‘The other toilets were out of use, and this old lady stole her…’ She looked around. The disabled toilet door was open, obviously operational. Back up the corridor, the family toilet was noisy with a group inside. The WPC raised her eyebrows. ‘We won’t take your details on this occasion, but please be aware that we take these matters very seriously. It’s a good job we located you as quickly as we did, or we’d have had to call social services.’ An hour later, Claire collapsed onto her couch at home. Molly was unharmed, that was all that mattered. Perhaps she’d overreacted, perhaps the old lady had simply become confused. Molly wriggled on her lap. With still shaking hands, Claire undid the baby’s coat to remove her babygrow, gasping as the slip of yellow paper fell from Molly’s back. Picking it up with thumb and forefinger, Claire grimaced as if it were poison. ‘That was entertaining,’ the note said. ‘See you again?’

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